A Soul-checkup: Preparing for the New Year

By Talia Davis

photo courtesy of The Gifted PhotographerThis is always a busy time of year. Most non-Jews notice when their Jewish neighbors, colleagues, and schoolmates are missing from view for many days in a row, several times over the next couple of months. As Jews, this is one of our big holiday seasons. In rapid succession we celebrate Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and Simchat Torah.

Rosh Hashanah is one of our four new years. This is our biggie. We ask for forgiveness and start the next year with a clean slate. Our calendar changes over and we begin reading the Torah from the beginning again.

Yom Kippur is the day of atonement, but don't let the name fool you. We don't only have one day to atone for the missteps of the previous year. Yom Kippur is the culmination of a month of slichot or forgiveness. It is on this day that the final decisions about our fate are made for the year to come.

Sukkot is a festival to celebrate the fall harvests. We build little booths outside our home and eat, drink, sleep, and hang out in them for seven days.

Finally, Simchat Torah is a celebration of our Torah. We have reached the end of the scroll and must roll it back to bereshit or Genesis to begin our cycle again. There is much dancing and singing with the Torah scroll.

But let us talk about the time leading up to these holidays. Rosh Hashanah takes place on the first day of the month Tishrei. Jews view the preceding month of Elul very seriously. Some view it with sadness and a heavy heart from the very first day, and some find a joy in the month. So what is so special about Elul? Elul is our chance to reflect on the past year, review our deeds or misdeeds, and ask for forgiveness.

There are many things that might be clear missteps in our lives. You didn't tell the clerk when she gave you too much change, you ate all of your brother's cereal and didn't replace it, or perhaps more serious transgressions. How do you know it was a transgression? As my parents would tell me and my father's father told him, "If you would be embarrassed about telling me something, that is a clue that you aren't happy with it." But there are additional things that not only mar our souls but our subconscious as well. The time your friend asked for help and you just didn't feel like it so you said you were busy. When someone gave you a gift and you forgot to say thank you. Even deeper, there is another level, the transgression you weren't even aware was happening. In your hurry to get out of class you stepped on someone's foot and didn't notice. You totally forgot that you didn't follow up with that friend who really needed your help.

With so many levels of transgressions, wait . . . I dislike that word. Perhaps I should say smudges or tears (tiny and large alike) in our souls. With so many options of smudges, how do you know how to make amends? And do I really have to?

The answer is yes, unequivocally. But here's the upside: a Jew must forgive every Jew. You cannot hold the grudge into the next year, for that will mar your own soul. So how to make amends . . . first apologize. You can send an email to your brother/sister and say, "I am sorry if I did anything to harm you in the past year." But, you say, I am not walking into a shop and apologizing to a clerk. I can't remember whom exactly it was I wronged. Good point. In that case, you need to ask G-d to forgive you and, very importantly, you need to forgive yourself.

Frankly, the easy part is asking friends and strangers to forgive you. The hard part comes when you have to forgive yourself. Even Hashem, G-d, will forgive you if you ask for it. No questions asked there; you just have to ask. The part that most of us struggle with is forgiving ourselves. Not only is it a struggle to forgive ourselves but also, when you start thinking about those things, you start piling them on. I didn't give enough to charity, I didn't go to the gym, I said I would pray every morning and I got lazy. The point of Eluling isn't to beat up on your soul. It is to clear your soul to lighten you up for the New Year.

The process can be intense if you really give it your attention. Many times I have seen people burst into tears at the first sound of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah because it is such a release. With the toots and bursts of the shofar, the sins, the mars, the blemishes wash away. While Rosh Hashanah is a festive two days, it is not a time for idle chatter and games. Our souls are still in limbo and will be until G-d seals the book of life on Yom Kippur. Therefore, it is suggested that you don't nap or have a lot of conversation in your home during this time; rather turn your mind to reading tehillim or psalms to keep your energies focused on the right idea.

Beyond all the trappings of honey and hearing the shofar, the end of Elul and the holiday of Rosh Hashanah provide us with two non-corporeal things.

1) A brand-new, fresh-out-of-the-package, new-car-smelling soul. No bumps, dents, dings, or blemishes. It's yours for the year to bump and ding and scratch; you just have to remember to clean it up next year.

2) Rosh Hashanah is a marker in time, a line on the doorpost measuring your growth. Compare the you of today and the you of last Rosh Hashanah. Have you grown in self and spirit?